The Word on the Street: Laying tefillin on the train

Travelling on the Sandringham line into Flinders Street station in the centre of Melbourne today, I witnessed "Jewish outreach on the streets," to repeat the phrase used by one of the people doing it. Three young Jewish men walked through my train carriage asking various men, myself included, if they were Jewish. To those who answered "yes," an invitation followed to lay tefillin. Within my sightline from my place on the train, I saw several men respond in agreement, and amidst a full carriage of passengers they placed a yarmulke (skull cap) on their head and wrapped a phylactery (box with straps, containing the text of the Shema) to their arm to bless God and recite the commandment. 

There are no pictures of the event here, as the Jewish man conducting the outreach who spoke with me declined my invitation to be photographed. At first somewhat surprised that I knew what tefillin was and what he was doing with it he opened up to explain that each Friday in the city around Flinders Street station the group to which he belonged do "Jewish outreach on the streets." (I did not learn more about the particular community to which he belonged, but from his dress he was evidently Orthodox.) My train line runs through or close to areas with strong and visible presence of Jewish tradition (seen in passing buildings and in people's dress) and it is not unusual that a Jewish person will sit next me on the train and read his Bible on his way to work. But today this "outreach" was much more public than a person of faith quietly reading their scripture. What was striking to me was that I was not the only one to talk with those engaged in the outreach. Several people took up warm conversation about what they were witnessing. 

(Photos below are from the campaign "Tefillin For Israel in Melbourne" on )

Just in the past few weeks, I have oftentimes seen Christian preachers in fire-and-brimstone mode at the intersection at Flinders Street station (sometimes on the step of the Anglican cathedral diagonally across the road). At least on Ash Wednesday I saw Christians at train stations offering "Ashes to Go," as well as travellers on the trains and trams with ash still smeared on their foreheads. On another occasion, near midnight, I heard youngsters with guitars singing Hillsongs on the bridge across the Yarra River as passersby headed to the station after their night out. The other day I followed a group of Hare Krishna devotees singing mantras as they made their--colourful (decked in saffron) and noisy (accompanied by drums)--way towards the Swanson and Flinders streets crossroads, in a parade that spontaneously picked up other walkers to join their song. At the same time, in recent years I have also seen--and heard of other examples--of male Christian clergy donned in clerical collars being spat at or verbally challenged about the churches' disastrous involvement in abuse of the vulnerable young.

The sights and sounds of religion in Melbourne are diverse, curious and disputed. The (albeit contested) word is on the streets. 

Beach Road, Melbourne. Photograph by Stephen Burns.

Beach Road, Melbourne. Photograph by Stephen Burns.